Chapter 6

                                                               Many ironies


Most readers of Esther read the story without catching the humor, irony, obscurities, and the skillful narrative skill of the book’s author. They are missing much.

In chapter 6 Ahasuerus is unable to sleep. No reason is given for his insomnia.[1] He orders that “the book of records, chronicles” be read to him, and “they were read to the king.”[2] His readers chanced[3] upon a report that Mordecai saved the king’s life from the plot of Bigthana and Teresh.[4] The king didn’t know if Mordecai was rewarded for saving his life,[5] asked his readers if Mordecai was rewarded, and they told him “no.” Apparently unable to decide what to do next,[6] Ahasuerus inquired who is outside in the court. It was Haman.[7]

Haman had rushed to the king to request permission to hang Mordecai, but is surprised to hear the king request him to tell him what reward should be given a person who the king wants to honor.[8] He doesn’t know that the king had just been reminded that he failed to honor Mordecai for saving his life. “Haman said in his heart: ‘who would the king delight to honor other than me?’”[9] He gave the king advice he thought was appropriate for him – dress this person in royal garments,  place the royal crown on his head, and have him driven by a senior official on the king’s horse, and have the official proclaim for all to hear “this is what is done to the man the king wants to honor.”[10] The king accepts his advice and tells him to do so to Mordecai the Judean (Jew).[11] And Haman had to honor his bitterest enemy.[12]

Haman returns home “mourning and with his head covered.”[13] His wise men and his wife Zeresh inform him, if Mordecai is of Judean seed you will not be able to prevail against him.


Relating what was thought

Ibn Ezra asks in his second commentary: how could the author of Esther know what Haman was thinking? He responds: the author wrote what he thought Haman was thinking.[14] Actually, the practice of putting words into the mouth or mind of historical figures, even though it is clear that the author didn’t know what was said or thought, was a common ancient practice. The first historians Herodotus and Thucydides did so in the third century BCE. Even the Jewish historian Josephus did so around 100 CE.  This practice helped readers understand what was happening. Current historians also offer this information but state or at least imply that it is their opinion.

The king’s crown

            Haman’s suggestion is in 6:8, dress the honoree in the king’s clothes, ride him on the king’s horse, “and set the royal crown on his head” seems to be out of order since the crown belongs as part of the king’s clothes. Ibn Ezra felt the order is proper; the crown was placed on the horse’s head to show it was the king’s horse. Fuerst writes “the crown on the horses’ head is well known from Persian relief inscriptions.” Rashi[15] notes that verse 9 indicates that Mordecai was dressed in the king’s clothes but does not mention the crown. He supposes that Haman went too far with his suggestion. When he mentioned that the crown should be placed on the honoree’s head, the king frowned and Haman immediately retracted, but not the crown.

“If Mordecai is a Jew”

            Haman’s wife’s and wise men’s comment in 6:13 is seemingly bizarre. They tell him, “if (Mordecai) is of the seed of the Judeans, you will not prevail against him.”[16] This is a strange comment since they certainly knew that Mordecai was a Judean.[17] Ibn Ezra mentions the explanation of others: “If he is of the seed of those who destroyed Agag and Amalek”[18] or “if he is a pure-blood Judean and not a convert.” A more reasonable answer is that Zeresh and Haman’s advisors were not saying “If,” as if they were unsure of his ancestry, but “If” should be understood as “Since,” or “If, as we know, Mordecai is Judean.” Esther’s author is emphasizing at this point in the drama that the Jewish people cannot be destroyed.

Why two feasts?

            Esther’s two feasts parallel Ahasuerus’ two feasts in the introduction to this tale and is an interesting literary devise. Yet we can still ask, as did ibn Ezra and others, why didn’t Esther reveal her plea to her husband on the day after her fast when she first visited him or during the first banquet? We have seen that in 5:8 Esther was quite fearful before and during her meeting with her husband. She was still hesitant during the first feast. Ibn Ezra explains that she saw that Haman held the highest office under her husband and how he was honored and feared that she was putting her life in danger and would die without helping her people. She also saw that the Judeans fasted but God did not respond. She hoped that if she delays, God will yet intercede.

The last irony of chapter 6

Esther’s author ends chapter 6 by inverting the ending of chapter 3 somewhat. Chapter 3 concludes with the city of Shushan (probably meaning the Jews who lived there) being confused while the king and Haman celebrated by sitting and drinking. Here, in an ironic twist, Haman is confused while Esther the Judean is summoning him a feast.


[1] Some talmudic rabbis who were convinced that God is involved in human affairs and sometimes manipulates humans to help fulfill the divine will, see God causing Ahasuerus’ inability to sleep, while others thought Ahasuerus suffered insomnia because he was consumed with jealousy that Esther invited Haman to join the pair at her feast (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 15b).

[2] Why is the plural “they” used? Is it the characteristic biblical practice that sometimes uses the plural when the singular is intended or does it suggest that many entries were read to the king or something else? What did the king expect to accomplish by having the chronicle of past deeds read to him? Did he find these entries so boring that he hoped it would help him fall asleep? Is our author offering us a bit of irony since what was boring to the king had enormous consequences for Haman and Mordecai?

[3] Again rabbis saw this as the manipulation by God.

[4] Bigthana is called Bigthan in 2:21. The difference is that the name is spelt here with an additional letter aleph. Was this the author’s error? Or did he purposely spell the name incorrectly here to show humorous irony again; how incompetent the king’s scribes were; there couldn’t even spell correctly?

[5] Irony again?

[6] Irony still again?

[7] It is likely that after the reading early during the night, the king slept. In the morning he asked who was in the courtyard so that he could consult with this official (C. Cohen, page 41). We can assume that one or more officials remained each night in the courtyard to aid the king if he had a request.

[8] The king is so self-centered that he doesn’t ask his minister what brought him to the court so early.

[9] An irony.

[10] This was not unique. Plutarch tells that “when Xerxes allowed Demaratus the Spartan frankly to ask what he wanted, he requested to have the king’s crown placed on his head and to be led through the city in the same manner as the king was” (Cohen, page 224). The ceremony is similar to what Pharaoh did for Joseph when he elevated him in Genesis 41:42-43.

[11] Another ironic event: Ahasuerus had ordered the death of all Judeans, now he is honoring the very person who caused Haman to request the implementation of this decree. Didn’t he know of the decree? Mordecai is called “Mordecai the Judean” in 5:13 and this is his title for virtually all appearance since that time. How did the king know Mordecai was a Judean? Will he now reward him by excluding him from the extermination decree? We do not know.

[12] This is the greatest irony of the chapter.

[13] Head covering in those days was a sign of mourning, as in II Samuel 15:30. Contrast the practice today among many Jews to wear a head covering as a sign of respect to God. The Babylonian Talmud Megillah 16a imagines that Haman’s daughter watched the procession of honor and thought that Mordecai was leading Haman. She tossed refuse on Haman’s head thinking he was Mordecai. This is the meaning of Haman’s “covered head.” When his daughter realized she had humiliated her father she committed suicide by jumping out of the window.

Where did Haman’s daughter get the idea that Mordecai was the man leading the horse? The Talmud does not say. As with most imaginative tales, questions such as this are not answered. There is a Yiddish saying that can be roughly translated: One does not question (details of) stories. However, we might suppose that she thought that the king ordered Haman to be honored and Haman disliked Mordecai so much that he chose Mordecai to lead the horse to humiliate him.

[14] As I pointed out in the past, ibn Ezra sometimes contradicts himself. In this instance he says in his first commentary that the book of Esther was composed by divine inspiration and God knows all.

[15] On verse 9.

[16] The “wise men” are ironically wise after the fact. They had previously advised Haman to kill Mordecai.

[17] As indicated in 5:13.

[18] A reference to King Saul in I Samuel 15:7 and 8.